Give them what they want

I am taking one of our usual hikes with Deuce and Rio with a friend who is visiting from out of town. It is normally John who takes this walk with them, but it is my turn to walk them with him being away.

We exit our property and before I have time to think about it, both dogs are running ahead and directly onto one of our neighbor’s property; something I don’t like them to do, even if the neighbor does not mind. My friend Gita and I continue up the trail and I know they will join us soon, but still I am not happy about them taking off as they did.

We continue our walk with me doing my standard routine of calling them to me here and there, and releasing them for more off-leash fun. They do well most of the time; however I noticed that Deuce is sort of complying but really more focused on smelling and peeing – favorite dog activities, of course.

Whenever I hike with someone I am always torn between engaging with my dogs and practicing recall skills and holding a conversation. This is what is happening today.

Later on, I am thinking about the hike and how I need to up my game. A few days later a contractor comes by with his dog Gracie. Gracie and my dogs are friends.

I decide to bring a tug along with me as we are discussing moving the fence on our property. My plan is to not call Deuce excessively while we are outside to engage with me. Instead, what I am going to do is make him aware that I have a tug with me and call him just once from a distance.

As we continue to discuss fencing options I will keep my eyes peeled on Deuce and just give him tug opportunities when he is either sticking around of sort of asking for it – doggy style.

Sure enough! I am walking with the tug and Deuce spots it ASAP. I call him from about 40 ft. and ask him to take the tug (which means run really fast towards me and put the tug in your mouth so that we can begin to play.)

As I call him he takes off in my direction like a bullet. Now we are playing tug.

I release him to go be a dog and he does so, but now closer to me – wondering when I might just ask him to come play tug again. We repeat the drill a few more times and we are done for the day.

This morning, we are off to a regular hike and I am ready to try having him focus on me by playing tug instead of what I normally do: call them and give them a treat and release them. Once again he is walking ahead of us and I yell at him to ‘get it!‘ He dashes down the hill and we engage in tug.

John is with us and he cannot believe the speed at which he returned to me. ‘Wow, that really works,’ he says. He is now eager to try it himself. We let Deuce go play and we work with Rio doing the same thing. I tell John that it is important to keep Deuce guessing as to when he might turn into the most fun guy he has ever met. John calls Deuce and he dashes to him.

We do this in several “hot spots” where the dogs on this hike love to go say ‘hi’ to people or at least go visit people’s homes. Because in the past John has allowed this to happen, now we need to change the expectation the dogs have with these two particular spots. One of them is the former home of another doggy friend so obviously Deuce and Rio make their way down the hill to go look for the absent pal.

With our game of tug we manage to keep both dogs focused on us as we pass the “hot spot” and as we do we tell them to ‘go play.’

I cannot stress enough the importance of teaching our dogs to be engaged with us when walking off-leash. For some dogs the promise of a treat when coming is all it takes; for others, like Deuce it is a game of tug. Ideally dogs will work with equal gusto for both: food and toys/play. The more reinforcers a person has to their disposal the easier it is to keep the dog engaged in them while off-leash.

I practice daily with my dogs some sort of training game variation where the fun revolves around interacting with me.

As we are ending our walk, I spot another one of Deuce and Rio’s friends in her backyard. She barks at us excitedly and I call out her name. Now both dogs are aware of her and are wanting to dash down the hill to go say hi. I test my tug game in such a high-value distraction. I call Deuce as customary and seconds later he is hanging from the tug toy.

John calls Rio and now she is searching for some treats on the ground. Yeah!

Working on recall with a high-level distraction! We tell our dogs to go say ‘hi’ as we all make our way down the steep hill. All three dogs are happy to see one another and they take off running and playing… a nice way to start the morning I think.